Miami Marlins meet reality TV on “The Franchise’’

The ‘Franchise’ offers a surprisingly candid look inside the clubhouse.

07/01/2012 5:00 AM

09/08/2014 5:57 PM

When the scoreboard screen showed the rapper Lil Wayne sitting in the stands, Miami Marlins catcher John Buck — sitting in the corner of his team’s dugout between innings — was moved to break into rhyme with a quick little rap of his own. Midway through it, to his horror, he saw the television crew in the camera well across the way laughing hysterically.

“There I am, doing some cheesy little rap like a redneck from Utah,” he recalls, “and when I saw them laughing, I remembered, ‘Oh, [bleep], I’m wearing a microphone tonight.’ I looked at the crew and shook my head no, like, you’re not gonna use that. And they shook their heads yes, like, ‘Oh yes we will.’ ”

And just like that, another Marlin player had learned his lesson: The Franchise camera is always watching. Crews from Showtime’s inside-the-locker-room series have been trailing the team since spring training, recording every belch, blink, joke, sneer and snort; every pat on the head and every cutting aside.

When relief pitcher Heath Bell, who signed with the Marlins as a free-agent this year, saw his children for the first time in weeks during a road trip to San Diego, The Franchise cameras were there. When manager Ozzie Guillen’s eyes filled with tears back in the clubhouse after a news conference announcing his suspension for singing the praises of Fidel Castro, The Franchise cameras were there.

And, more than once, when Marlins players in the locker room drop their towels after a shower, The Franchise cameras have been there. “You’re talking to them, you get involved in the conversation, the towel slips, and it’s, ‘oh, hello there,’ ” Buck says. “We’re still learning to be more careful about that.”

The Franchise raised eyebrows among sports and viewers (it had an average audience of just under a million, “a very big deal in our universe,” says David Nevins, the premium-cable network’s programming chief) when it debuted last year, following the defending world champion San Francisco Giants for a year. TV shows had gotten to peek inside the locker rooms of pro sports teams before, but never during the regular season.

But The Franchise’s look at the Marlins — which debuts on July 11 — takes everything a giant step further, with cameras going into meetings among the team’s executives, where the talk is all hardball (pun definitely intended.)

The show’s cameras were in the room when Guillen, looking like he was about to vomit, was told by Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and president David Samson that he was being suspended. They’ve been there when Loria and Samson scornfully dismissed a proposal from slumping third baseman Hanley Ramirez’s agent for a contract extensions. (“I’m just amazed he thinks the time to do it is when he’s hitting .220,” Samson said, rolling his eyes.) And when Samson derided his own promotional efforts.

“Mother’s Day is the worst [bleepin’] day to host a game,” Samson complained.

“At least we have nice bracelets for the mothers that come,” Loria interjected. “I may even pick one up.”

“It’ll turn your wrist green,” Samson warned him.

“We’ve become the fly on the wall,” says Franchise field producer Mary Gaynin. “We watch and listen, and they just don’t notice us. The other day, the crew was sitting near the door to Ozzie Guillen’s office when Heath Bell [who for several weeks had been pitching badly, blowing games] came walking toward it, hard and fast. Obviously something was going to happen. We just followed him inside the office, and when he shut the door, nobody told us to get out.”

The crew wound up taping a raw exchange in which Bell said Guillen had broken his confidence by taking him out of games too quickly, that now every time he threw a bad pitch he was expecting to be sent to the showers, and that nobody can play that way. Guillen hotly denied it, then reassured Bell, I’ve got your back.

“We got the whole thing on tape,” says Gaynin. “It’s not like they didn’t know we were there — each one of them sat down separately with us and we did interviews where they explained their thinking. It’s just that everybody has gotten used to us being around...That’s the kind of thing, I think, viewers are really going to be fascinated by. Fans know this kind of conversation happens in baseball, but they’ve never seen it.” (The drama was only enhanced by what happened next: In his next 10 pitching appearances, Bell didn’t give up a single run.)

The Franchise is not exactly journalism. Produced for Showtime by baseball’s own studio, MLB Productions, The Franchise is unlikely to break news of a seriously scandalous nature like, say, steroid use.

But neither is it the contrived drama of TV reality shows, a term that makes everybody associated with The Franchise wince. “You hear reality show, and people think of Jersey Shore or The Kardashians,” says senior producer Gary Waksman. “But this is not a reality show. These guys weren’t assembled here to be a cast in our show. They’re baseball players whether we’re here or not.”

Whatever you call it, though, the show’s camera crews get an extraordinary level of access. That was the price Loria — who desperately wanted a promotional platform for his retooled team and its new stadium — was willing to pay to get The Franchise to follow the Marlins. His promise was put to the test when Guillen’s interview praising Castro was published in Time magazine this spring, triggering threats of a boycott by the Cuban exile community and plunging the club into crisis.

“I did have a moment of doubt” about whether the Marlins would stick to their promise when the Castro story broke, admits Showtime’s Nevins. “I’m sure when Jeffrey made us the promise, he could never have imagined anything like that. But when I found out we had the footage of the meeting [where Guillen was suspended], I called both the Marlins and Major League Baseball to see if they were going to try to stop us from putting it on the air...But both parties, after a lot of consideration, said, let’s do it.” Not only was the tape cleared to air, but the Marlins agreed to a special preview episode built around it, which aired in April.

Loria says he never for a moment reconsidered the deal with The Franchise. “Obviously I didn’t know when I agreed that we would have the problem over Castro,” he says. “But I knew there would be something, because there’s always something going on here. It’s an open organization, and Ozzie is an honest guy. There are no secrets in baseball.

“It’s an interesting new situation in Miami. We’ve got a brand-new ballpark and a new team of young players. It’s an opportunity to show we’re an exciting club....I find it exhilarating. Either you’re a risk-taker, or you’re not, and I was.”

His players turned out to be risk-takers, too. When major league pitcher Jim Bouton gave fans their first candid glimpse of pro sports locker rooms four decades ago with his book Ball Four, a diary of the 1968 season that revealed players were fond of girls, drinks, four-letter words and scatological tricks with birthday cakes, it sent baseball players into a collective rage. During the next season, players like Pete Rose would jeer at Bouton every time they got a hit: “Put that in your [bleepin’] book, Shakespeare!” The baseball commissioner ordered Bouton to issue a statement saying the book was fiction (he refused) and the head of the Baseball Writers Association of America labeled him a “social leper.”

Buck, the Marlins’ representative to the players’ union, wasn’t quite that negative. But he was deeply skeptical when he learned the team management wanted to bring The Franchise into the locker room.

“Call me old school or whatever, but I didn’t want cameras following me everywhere,” Buck says. “I called a couple of my friends on the Giants to ask what their experience with the show was: What’s this going to be about? Are they trying to get the smut on us? Because I really didn’t know, I had never watched the show.”

But his buddies in San Francisco, who said they liked the way the show humanized them, showing them as husbands and parents, not just ballplayers, had no complaints — and, to Buck’s surprise, neither did his teammates, who didn’t see what he was worried about.

“This is a younger team — they’re all on Twitter, telling the whole world what they’re doing anyway,” he says. “I’m sure if you had asked George Brett and those guys back in his day to tweet about what they did in a game, or what they were doing this weekend, they would have thought it was asinine. But the game is evolving, and so is the society we live in. Everything is not a huge secret anymore.”

In any event, The Franchise is not quite the Orwellian experience it might sound like. Locker room wardrobe malfunctions are erased. Players wear microphones only if they want to, and signs are posted in the locker room identifying anybody who’s wired for sound. (It turns out the microphones mostly pick up sound effects like the crack of a bat connecting with a ball, though Franchise producers were surprised to discover that pitcher Carlos Zambrano talks to himself on the mound, murmuring words of self-encouragement like, “Slower, slower.)

And players who think better of something they’ve said on camera can go back later to ask that it be deleted. A few have done so, killing jokes they made about products they endorse, or expunging especially fabulous swear words. Others, not so much.

At the team’s first meeting during spring training, a Franchise camera caught Larry Beinfest, the Marlins’ head of baseball operations, introducing his new manager: “I’m going to turn things over to the man who can use and translate the word [bleep] in several languages, Ozzie Guillen.” Afterward, Loria congratulated Guillen on his speech: “Ninety-seven F-bombs! That’s the only way you can get their attention.”

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